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Public Protest Casts a Shadow on Solar Arrays

National Renewable Energy Lab

A group called Conservatives for Clean Energy recently surveyed 500 Virginia voters and found 72% want more emphasis on solar power here,  but as developers share plans with the public, they’re finding plenty of resistance.  Sandy Hausman reports on why some people object to solar arrays and whether their fears are founded.

The testimony was sometimes emotional when the board of supervisors in Spotsylvania County held a public hearing on plans for a massive solar array. One hundred thirty people signed up to speak, and the meeting went on for nine hours. 

There were those, like Vivian Stanley, who supposed cadmium – a chemical in solar panels -- might pose a public health risk.

“First off I’d like to comment that all these people who think this is so wonderful should go buy the properties of everybody who is adjacent to this solar monster, because we don’t want their poisons!” she said.

Others worried the array would be noisy, could create a heat island, cause brush fires or use up groundwater, and many – like John Offner -- objected to losing thousands of trees to make way for 1.8 million solar panels.

“My wife and I chose to move our family to our community to take advantage of the many benefits it had to offer," he explained.  "One of those was a quiet neighborhood with dense woods and beautiful views.  Proposed site A is directly across from our front yard where our children play.”

Several realtors warned that property values in the area would drop.  That may prove true, but many of the other concerns do not.  We spoke with Sean McGinnis, director of the Green Engineering Program at Virginia Tech, who admitted cadmium can be hazardous.

Credit National Renewable Energy Lab
Solar panels are tested for durability, monitored and inspected.

“It’s a carcinogen.  It causes kidney problems in certain concentrations, but all of the materials that are active in a solar panel are essentially encapsulated in glass, so I would say the risk of any material in the panel actually getting into either the groundwater or the soil is very, very limited,” he says.

And not all solar panels contain cadmium.  McGinnis also dismissed fears of brush fires and diminished supplies of water.  True -- the array could trap and radiate heat, but at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, engineer Chris Deline doubts it would be significant based on modeling at existing arrays.

“On average you get a 2-3 degree increase in temperatures by removing the vegetation and just replacing it with metal and glass,” he says.

And after a disruptive period of construction, he doubts the array would be a noisy neighbor:

“You may have a hum from the power conversion equipment, but typically it’s a fairly quiet operation.  When properly designed and maintained, you don’t even know that they’re there,” says Deline.

And the developer, a Utah-based firm called sPower, said it would maintain a buffer zone of at least 350 feet, making it possible to screen the array from view with trees and bushes.

Even so, McGinnis was sympathetic to people who might live nearby.

“This particular array is several hundred times bigger than the next biggest array in the state.  You’re going to have acres and acres and acres of  very high tech looking panels next to each other, and that looks very different from a forest.”

But he urged opponents to take some positive steps to reduce the need for large solar farms.

“You know if you don’t want a large solar array right in your back yard, when are you going to start putting solar panels on all of your houses, because that’s where it really needs to be.  We really do have a large climate change problem.”

So what would happen if everyone in Virginia did that?  And why put solar arrays here at all, when there are vast expanses of sunny desert out west.  We’ll answer those questions in our next report. 

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.
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